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Worlds of Design: RPGs as Microcosms of Life

When I first saw D&D I said “I hate dice games.” But I discovered that it wasn’t a “dice game,” played properly. It is a microcosm of Life: do everything you practically can to avoid having to rely on a die roll to save your bacon. You won’t always be able to, but you can minimize the number of times you have to life-and-death “roll dem bones.”

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Life with a Capital "L"

An RPG can be a microcosm of Real Life in the most basic sense (though often it isn’t): about how to behave rightly, how to cooperate, and how to avoid being foolish. First, let's define a microcosm: “a community, place, or situation regarded as encapsulating in miniature the characteristic qualities or features of something much larger.”

There has to be real danger, a real chance that your character will die. Otherwise, it doesn’t resemble Life at all. Adventure stories aren’t like Life, because you know the good guys will win. Some RPG players prefer a bit of Life in the broadest sense, some prefer Adventure Stories.

As in Life, risky behavior in an RPG is more likely to get your character killed. Taking unnecessary risks in an RPG is similar to, for example, not wearing a seat belt. Or being a smoker. Or attending meetings/events with lots of people around when there’s a pandemic! But some people pursue risky behavior despite the risks.

A Different Point of View

This puts me in mind of a character whose name from the very start was “Billbash the Rash” (really). He charged a balrog (old version, not nearly as quintessentially dangerous as the devil version!) with a lance on a horse when at second level. I think he managed to live by sheer good luck! But it was not an example to live by.

One of the bigger lessons RPGs may teach: “He who lives by the dice [chance] dies by the dice.” Yes, this is a take-off on “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword” (which some RPGs, the ones where you usually avoid combat, also teach).

This is not a “heroic” point of view. I understand wanting to be heroic, and one way to arrange this is to let everyone know that their characters WILL DIE sooner or later, so they can feel OK about being heroic until that happens. I’ve preferred a more mercenary/soldier point of view, trying to stay alive until the war/job is over rather than to be heroic. But both versions can work. I do recall once playing one of my lesser characters in a first edition game that was supposed to serve as a source of ideas for someone wanting to write a story. So I had my character do something somewhat heroic - and he died. “A foolhardy act is a brave act which fails.” (He was raised from the dead but owed a vast sum of money for it for the rest of his life, and became a paladin.)

Of course, in Real Life few people look to be heroic. One of the attractions of RPGs is the ability to do things you’d never do in real life.

GMs Beware!

From the GM’s point of view, keep this in mind: adventure stories are often not realistic, not true-to-Life. Especially, stories often lack real danger, whereas Life does (I think of how the stormtroopers can’t hit the good guys, while their armor never helps the stormtroopers, only hinders). Because it’s a game, necessarily separated from reality by the “Magic Circle” as Game Studies people call it, you have a choice of some relation to reality, with the danger to characters necessarily associated; or of a lack of reality, the “purer” form of escapism, of adventure storytelling.

Let me leave you with another example of lessons for Life: high-level (9th+) characters faced a poison-cloud-breathing iron golem in the next room. By swapping items (this was First Edition D&D) the party’s two clerics had saves of “2" vs poison, that is, only a 1 on a d20 would be a failure. My advice to have only one cleric go in, so that the other could neutralize poison if necessary, was ignored (I wasn’t one of the clerics). Only one chance in 400, after all. Both rushed in, the golem breathed, both rolled “1's”. And there was no “Plan B”. Others killed the golem without further loss though at great risk, but both clerics were dead, no Raise Dead available! We even had a Rod of Resurrection but no one who could use it. . .

When it comes to Life in role-playing games, in my opinion: Don’t rely on chance if you can avoid it!
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
It is a microcosm of Life: do everything you practically can to avoid having to rely on a die roll to save your bacon. You won’t always be able to, but you can minimize the number of times you have to life-and-death “roll dem bones.”
My sentiments also. But I think we're in the minority now; I can't remember the last time I saw a PC try to avoid combat.

(He was raised from the dead but owed a vast sum of money for it for the rest of his life, and became a paladin.)
I would've become a monk and taken a Vow of Poverty. Then I'd keep offering "wisdom" to pay off my debt.

Of course, in Real Life few people look to be heroic. One of the attractions of RPGs is the ability to do things you’d never do in real life.
Maybe it just takes extreme times to draw out the heroes? I think we've seen some lately.
 

whimsychris123

Explorer
Very thought-provoking article. Thank you. I suppose the risk and chance of the game make it exciting and that’s why players often choose dice rolls over caution. The stakes are fairly low. A character is essentially a sheet of paper and an idea. A character dies, you roll up a new one.

The trick of a game for DMs often comes down to knowing your players. I’ve played with young people who would have been devastated if their characters died, so I had to give them the illusion of risk. Others, however, need a character to die once in a while to remember that risk exists and it’s not all about breaking down the door and confronting what’s on the other side.
 
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Krachek

Adventurer
What DM should add is the fact that important Npc can roll double 1 too.
in a fantasy world everybody should be aware that death is near, and some luck keep us alive for now,
 


Hussar

Legend
A lot of this is somewhat revealing of how people view "Life". I mean, even in very dangerous jobs, such as active duty soldier, doctor during a pandemic, firefighter, the odds of your actually dying on the job are still extremely small. As in less than 1 in a 1000 kind of small.

So, how much of a "microcosm of life" is it that not one, but two, adventurers die in a 1 in 400 situation. Even if you had held one cleric back, that's still a 5% chance of dying outright. Which, frankly, is a MASSIVELY dangerous thing.

We expect our characters though to completely ignore the odds and do the right thing anyway. After all, that's the point of being a hero. But, then we increase the odds of dying to the point where, in real life, adventuring would be the realm of suicidals and brain washed fanatics. No rational person would ever take risks like this. Certainly not repeatedly.

There's a very good reason that Russian Roulette hasn't really caught on.
 

Lylandra

Adventurer
Your last anecdote with the two clerics is exactly why I avoid save-or-die-by-1-dieroll effects like the plague in any d20 system. Because the chance of rolling a 1 is much too high for any reasonable (read: "realistic") probability even if you got a character who's basically immune. We've had that problem with PCs who were epic level but died due to rolling a 1 on a reflex saving throw of DC19 when they got a 20+ reflex score. That shouldn't happen, especially not with a 5% chance IMO.

"I attack the door and miss it with a 5% chance" as a professional melee character is on the same level, even though less deadly in most cases.

Also, be careful to not confuse "life" (which, as I interpret your stance, means "Applying the probabilities of chance and success given by the game to any aspect of the story no matter what", but could also be translated into simply wanting "no plot armor") with "realism". Because, as @Hussar said, people would be suicidial idiots should they choose to become adventurers. There is a reason why, in older times, people usually had to be forced to go to war. And that's with lower chances of death. "Dying heroically" is a fiction trope itself, nothing your usual "real person" would opt for. To quote Sakaguchi, "In the real world things are very different. You just need to look around you. Nobody wants to die that way."
 

My sentiments also. But I think we're in the minority now; I can't remember the last time I saw a PC try to avoid combat.
A big part of this is the change between "combat as war" to "combat as sport" in game design. In AD&D and older direct combat was deadly, so ways of avoiding it or winning before initiative is rolled was the norm. With 3E and beyond, the XP system changed to be entirely about combat, so players were encouraged to fight everything they could.

I've changed my game up a bit to help encourage avoiding fights. Monsters only give out half the normal amount of XP. The rest of the XP they would normally get is instead assigned to: exploration encounters (tricks, traps, puzzles, obstacles, etc.), social encounters (convincing NPCs and getting clues/information), and even just success of the adventure (encouraging them not to give up). My players know this, so it adjusts their thinking about the game.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
It's been a long time since I've relied on a single die roll to determine life or death in all but a handful of cases. Strategy, tactics, alliances, plans all make a big difference in my game.

However, I also don't want an overly-cautious avoid dice rolls (or conflicts) at all costs game. Challenges are part of the game, if all challenges can be overcome by "smart" gameplay then it's only because the players eliminating all uncertainty. The only way I see to do that is super-cautious gameplay or by convincing the DM there is no uncertainty. The former is boring, the latter relies more on player ability than PC ability. Sometimes for a plan to work the rogue needs to succeed at a stealth check, or the bard needs to successfully deceive the guard.

Different groups are going to have different preferences of course. But for me, sometimes you just have to roll the dice and take a chance. Hopefully failure is not PC ending but if there is no risk I don't value the reward.
 

Hussar

Legend
A few more thoughts.

1. A lot of this has to do with @lewpuls earlier article of "Never tell me the odds". And all the problems that come with relying on the DM to determine odds. This especially gets compounded with the notion of "earning" rewards. Think about it this way. We generally don't have a problem of a 1 in 20 death chance like the example above. It's fun. Yet, with extremely few exceptions, how often would you reverse that? Allow the players a 1 in 20 chance of automatically defeating every encounter? There's a reason that things like Vorpal Swords are almost never given out as rewards. IOW, the deck is being stacked here.

2. Why is the price of failure always death in D&D? It's so boring. I'd much, much rather have save or suffer some sort of long term effect that you have to deal with. I've always found Save or Die to be kinda pointless.
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
2. Why is the price of failure always death in D&D? It's so boring. I'd much, much rather have save or suffer some sort of long term effect that you have to deal with. I've always found Save or Die to be kinda pointless.

Part of the reason I've generally moved to Superheroes as my primary RPG genre. So many wonderful things can happen if a hero loses - Deathtraps, being on "ice" for a few weeks while the villian has a duplicate ruining the heroes name, making being inside a way to get secret info on the villain... lots of wonderful options.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
Why is the price of failure always death in D&D? It's so boring. I'd much, much rather have save or suffer some sort of long term effect that you have to deal with. I've always found Save or Die to be kinda pointless.
Good question. I think the basic answer is, simplicity of design. But GMs can certainly create states in between death and OK. The only period when I used critical hits, I made up a table of temporary (until well-healed, sometimes) injuries. What do you do with a one-legged fighter, though. It makes for greater complication. But players did tend to hold onto their big heal spells just in case. . .
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
2. Why is the price of failure always death in D&D?
Because D&D has rules that require character death? And because most monsters are designed not just to kill things, but with special/magical abilities that help them kill things? Because slavery sucks, bandits don't own jails, and there's no rules subsystem for negotiation/surrender?

Part of the reason I've generally moved to Superheroes as my primary RPG genre.
Psst...D&D characters are superheroes in medieval clothing. But with better origin stories.

Good question. I think the basic answer is, simplicity of design. But GMs can certainly create states in between death and OK. The only period when I used critical hits, I made up a table of temporary (until well-healed, sometimes) injuries. What do you do with a one-legged fighter, though.
I agree with simplicity, but I think it's more due to the DM's capabilities, and less the game design. The DM has a lot on her plate, so it's a lot easier to say, "welp, you're dead, better get resurrected" than to roll on a hit-location table, or figure out grappling rules while an opponent holds the disabled character for ransom.

One thing that might get overlooked with the dreaded death-spiral is that earning a victory once you're in the spiral is sweeter. The one-legged fighter (who wins) gets a much better reputation than the able-bodied fighter.
 

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